A short story by Sam Vest
Hamlin woke to the sound of sirens. 6:14 AM read his iPhone, a whole minute before he liked to get up. Hamlin rolled over in his king-size-bed, and dozed into a dream of having to pee, but the bathroom was locked. His Marimba ring-tone went off. He scurried across the dark mahogany floor, and was thankful to find the bathroom open.
Hamlin cooked two eggs sunny-side up and placed them on separate plates, each with a generous slice of tomato. He rapped the first plate with tin foil and brought the second onto the balcony, 31 stories up.
A streak of light outlined the neighboring skyscrapers. The gray horizon gave way to a crimson dawn.
“Good show, nature.” Hamlin said aloud.
He ate a slice of egg and tomato and moaned with delight.
Red lights flashed below. Hamlin leaned over the railing. Emergency vehicles crowded in front of an alley adjacent to Hamlin’s building. Wind swept up from the streets and chilled his ears.
FSSSSSSSS! The teapot whistled inside.
Hamlin chugged his tea, and hand-washed the mug before heading to the elevator. There was room service for chores like washing dishes in his building, but Hamlin took on such tasks because he felt they somehow forgave the fact that he was rich, and more importantly, Hamlin believed acts of humility cleansed him of his sins.
The elevator zipped to the ground floor in the blink of an eye. Hamlin entered the lobby, foil-wrapped plate in hand. A doorman in a military-like uniform opened the electric gate outside so Hamlin never had to slow his pace. He left the Benington Luxury Lofts behind and entered the streets of Skid Row, where everything was poor and grunge.
Across the street, stray cats meowed at a fire truck blocking the way to a dumpster in the alley. Firemen dug through the bed of a garbage truck filled with the Benington waste.
Hamlin kicked a can and thought of his Mercedes he could have taken. The three-block walk to the bus stop was an act of penance. Bums and broken appliances littered the pavement. The toxic air reeked of the raw sewage both underneath the street and upon it. Hamlin dug his face into the collar of his coat and navigated over the broken glass and mysterious puddles like a contemporary dancer.
At the bus stop, Buck, a homeless man named appropriately after his dental condition, offered Hamlin a copy of the Fulton Times in exchange for the foil covered plate. Buck jammed the plate into his mouth without so much as removing the wrapping.
“Tanks mista Hamlin!” Buck said with such enthusiasm he spit egg on Hamlin’s Italian shoes.
“Ol’ Buck luvs dem Benintan food.” He tickled his only tooth like it was his little brother.
The rusty 187 bus farted to a halt. Hamlin dug his nose deeper into his the collar. He dropped three quarters into the metal box next to the driver. She frowned at him so he nodded at her as politely as he could without freeing his nose to smell her bus.
Hamlin used the newspaper advertisements to sanitize a seat between a snoring bum and a woman whose brows hung so low over her eyes she required a seeing-eye-dog. Hamlin let her ashy Labrador retriever lick the egg off his shoes.
Buck liked to rearrange the newspaper so the article he fancied most became front-page news. And just to be clear, Buck circled the article with a dirty finger:
Street player granted backstage pass to Montgomery Concert Hall
Hamlin thrust his thumbs between the pages and flicked open the business section on the first try. His eyes zipped across the page and fixed upon the headline:
Subprime Loans Begin to Default
Hamlin grinned underneath his collar.
The snoring bum leaned against him as the bus stopped at 8th and Fender. Hamlin pushed the bum off with his newspaper the way people use paper towels to open bathroom doors after washing their hands. He hopped off the bus. A great black obelisk, called the Onyx Tower, thrust into the clouds.
Hamlin scaled the tower to the executive suites on the 97th floor. A chrome plaque on the receptionist’s desk read:
TRUSPERITY REAL ESTATE
Men in pinstripe suits shouted at each other over the news of the subprime loans. Hamlin swiped his card over a door with another chrome plaque, which read:
A five-foot tall print of Light of the World dominated the wall of Hamlin’s office. The ticking hands of the clock on his desk were silver crosses. Hamlin strode to the window-wall, which looked out upon the city he had conquered.
When the real estate market crashed three years ago, Hamlin lived out of a storage garage. He spent whole days without eating. One afternoon, in a fit of gastrointestinal torture, Hamlin had a vision. A fiery angel rose from the pain in his stomach and told him this parable:
A king once ordered his tax collector to fetch the money owed to him by farmers for cultivating his land. “But Master,” said the tax collector, “The winter season is upon us. How shall they stock their pantries without savings?” “Fool!” said the king, “All men die sooner or later. What wrong is there in hastening the inevitable?” The tax collector could not think of an answer so he said, “Master, they listen only to their god and will not give me the money.” “Make yourself out to be a profit of their God,” said the king, “and they shall obey.” The tax collected donned pagan robes and frightened the farmers by speaking in tongues to them. They gave up all they owed.
Hamlin awoke and ran to a Salvation Army. He exchanged his pit-stained suit for a pair of Levies and white dress shirt, which he buttoned to the top. He tucked a Bible under his arm and visited the home of Margaret Sinclair, a widow whose home faced foreclosure.
Margaret opened the door for the man with the heavenly smile.
“I’ve been called to save your home from the banks.” Said Hamlin, “I pray you’ll trust me to do God’s will.”
Margaret clenched her bosom and wept.
“Tha Lord haz ansud ma prayas.” She embraced Hamlin. They prayed together, and she fed him chicken soup from a can. Hamlin promised to buy her home, pay off her mortgage, and lease it back to her so she could afford it.
The next day Margaret signed over the title of her home.
The next week a strange man knocked on Margaret’s door and told her he owned the house.
The next month Margaret slept in her first homeless shelter.
The next year she slept in a cardboard box on Skid Row.
Hamlin skyrocketed the financial ladder. He used public records to find leagues of struggling homeowners. The poor had a tendency to be fiercely religious. They handed him the titles of their homes proclaiming, “Hallelujah!” Hamlin sold the homes to the first buyer who believed in Jesus, and disappeared a richer man.
Homeowners cried out for their savior when the bank foreclosed their homes. Amongst the people Hamlin “saved” were: senior citizens, widows, young couples, veterans, handicapped and the mentally ill. They hadn’t the sense to seek justice on Hamlin, or the financial means to support legal action if they did. They became stray dogs. All eventually wound up on Skid Row.
“What’s wrong with hastening the inevitable?” Hamlin said to himself as he scrolled down a fresh list of ‘at-risk’ homeowners on his MacBook Pro. He noted three addresses, hung his three-piece suit, and pulled out his work clothes from a desk drawer. He left the Onyx Tower in stiff Levies and a white dress shirt with a Bible tucked under his arm.
Hamlin returned at sunset with three house titles protruding from hid back pocket. He posted three homes for sale on Craigslist and bought ad space in the Fulton Times. He stuffed his work clothes into the bottom desk drawer and got dressed in ‘normal’ clothes. The three-piece suit felt like a sleeping gown compared to the itchy jeans.
He counted the cash in his wallet. $2685. He’d spent $15 earlier that day printing three stacks of legal papers at a public library, each of which now held a dozen signatures from Isabel Millitelo, Jorgé Muñez, and Layla Chibanga. Hamlin crossed the street to the Wells Fargo and withdrew $15. He packed the $2700 into his leather wallet and wrapped it with a rubber band. The weight felt reassuring against his upper thigh. He caught the 186 bus back to the Benington.
Hamlin cooked a salmon stir-fry for dinner. He took a plate onto the balcony with a glass of wine. The neighboring skyscrapers sparkled like mile high Christmas trees. The tart Cabernet Savignon mated with the sweet and smoky barbeque flavor of General Tso’s sauce in Hamlin’s mouth. He closed his eyes and remembered the starvation that nearly killed him three years ago, and the storage garage with no view. He thanked God for his slice of heaven on earth, and the homeless people who’d given it to him.
Hamlin tied the garbage bag filled with salmon skin and scraps of garlic. Rather than leave the smelly heap for the maid in the morning. Hamlin put on his coat and descended the Benington, bag in hand, to fulfill his evening penance.
The doorman smirked and opened the gate. Wind funneled across the desolate streets tasting like second-hand smoke. Hamlin crossed Fender Ave to an alley. He paused and squeezed the plastic bag. Police tape hung across the entrance to the alley forming a an ‘X’. Just beyond a gang of cats jumped in and out of a dumpster. Hamlin scanned the alley and found nothing peculiar apart from the police tape. He looked both ways down Fender Avenue. Late night traffic hummed in the distance. Only trash loitered in the streets.
Hamlin climbed through the tape.
“Mee-how!” Hamlin said.
The cats leapt from the dumpster and ran deeper into the alley where the streetlights didn’t reach. Their eyes glowed in the shadows. Hamlin chuckled to himself. He slung the trash bag into the dumpster and ducked under the tape.
“Uuuuhhh…” came a low moan from the dumpster. Hamlin tripped over the tape and ripped it all down.
“Huh— hello?” Hamlin’s voice cracked.
Wind whistled through the alley. Hamlin’s breaths quickened. Cool air pricked his ears. Garbage clanked inside the dumpster. Hamlin jammed his nose against the collar of his coat and looked over the edge.
“Raaahr!” A cat lunged from the dumpster. Hamlin jumped three five back.
“Jesus! Scat! Scram!” Hamlin said.
The cat darted into the gloom.
Hamlin took a deep breath and turned to leave.
“Jesus Christ! Get out of there!” Hamlin looked into the dumpster. A streetlamp cast a streak of orange inside. A human hand protruded from the trash. The hand twitched.
“Oh God!” Hamlin vaulted into the dumpster and yanked the hand. A woman emerged from the garbage. Her eyes sank deep into her skull and her hanging skin revealed the bones beneath. Her jaw hung agape and the pupils of her eyes rolled into the back of her head.
“Uuuhhhh…” said the woman. She shivered all over.
“Hang in there!” Hamlin said.
He jumped out of the dumpster and pulled her out. She weighed as much as a pillow. Hamlin ran into the street. A taxicab jammed on its breaks. Hamlin looked into the windshield like a deer in headlights. The cab driver kicked open the door.
“You stupid pri—” the driver stopped short at the sight of the woman.
“Please, take her to the hospital!” Hamlin said. The cab driver looked like he was going to be sick.
“Please!” Hamlin said.
The cab driver shook his head, jumped into his car, and sped off.
The electric gate rolled open. The doorman about fell out of his seat.
“Call an ambulance!” Hamlin said.
He hit the elevator button with his butt.
“Have them come to my room!” Hamlin said as the elevator closed.
“Nnn- nuh- am- buh- lanz…” said the woman.
Hamlin tried not to look at her. The initial adrenaline craze wore off and Hamlin suddenly couldn’t believe what he was doing.
“Nuh- ambu-lanz!” her bony hand pulled Hamlin’s collar off his nose. The smell of vomit filled Hamlin’s nostrils. He looked down into her sunken eyes.
“I- I’m gonna to get you help.” he said.
“NO!” she broke out into a fit of coughs that convulsed her whole body, like her lungs would fly out.
“Alright!” Hamlin said.
The elevator opened. Hamlin wrapped the woman in a blanket and laid her on the floor next to the fireplace.
“Nnn-nuh ambulanz!” she started coughing again.
“Yes, OK!” Hamlin said. He picked up the phone and dialed the front desk.
“Cancel the ambulance... Just do it!”
The woman stopped coughing. Hamlin stood over her. Inside the sunken crevices of her face, her pupils rolled out from the back of her head and fixed on Hamlin.
“What do you want? You’re not dyin’ in here.” Hamlin said.
The woman brought her bony hand to her mouth and tapped her purple lips. Hamlin nuked a bowel of chicken soup. He propped the woman against the side of a bulky leather chair, next to the fire, and fed her with a spoon. Hot broth trickled down the sides of her chin as she chewed. Her sunken eyes never left Hamlin’s face.
She ate the entire bowel. Hamlin set it down and wiped her mouth with the blanket. Her eyes wandered to the kitchen, designer furniture, and chandelier. She wasn’t shaking anymore. The dancing flames cast warm hues on her pale complexion.
“Nn-nice place.” She said. Hamlin laughed.
“Nice? You couldn’t find a better place in all of Fulton!” The woman pulled the blanket tighter over her shoulders.
“Ah know.” She said.
“Know? How could you know? This is probably the first time you’ve ever set foot in a place like the Benington.”
She looked into the fire, sighed, and coughed, only this one didn’t sound life threatening.
“I yousta be a real ‘state agent.” She said.
Hamlin’s stomach twisted. He leaned in.
“Lost ma job when da market crashed—”
“Me too! My God I nearly starved to death like you!”
The loose skin contracted over the woman’s brow.
“How did ya escape?” she said.
“I- uh—” The woman’s glowing eyes made Hamlin tremble. He grabbed the bowel and went to the sink. He could feel the eyes on his back.
“What’s your name?” he said.
“Judith.” She said.
“Judith, do you believe in second chances?” Hamlin scrubbed the bowel with a sponge and watched the water carry the residue down the drain. The gas flames clicked and cackled. He turned around. Judith stood in front of the sliding glass door of the balcony like the grim reaper made flesh and blood. The blanket draped from the top of her head to the floor, clenched to her bosom by a white hand. She was taller than Hamlin realized.
“Would you like to see the view?” he said, moving to the door. He opened it and welcomed her outside, but dared not touch her.
Only a slit of moon hovered in the sky casting purple shadows over the city. A howling wind drowned the hum of twilight traffic. The flickering lights that had always filled Hamlin with delight now gave him no comfort amongst his ghastly guest. The wind chilled Hamlin’s ears.
“Come inside, Judith, it’s freezing out here.”
She didn’t move.
“Come on I’ll set you up for the night.”
Hamlin grabbed and spun her around. The blanket fell from her head. Tears streamed down her face. She was shaking again.
“Oh no, Judith, come on, it’s alright, I don’t mind.”
Hamlin carried her inside and lay her down in his king-sized bed. She tried to get up but Hamlin eased her back down.
“Judith, I’ll make you an offer,” She dug her face in the pillow. Hamlin removed the $2700 from his wallet and put it on the nightstand along with a business card.
“Tomorrow I want you to clean yourself up. Take this money and buy whatever you want. Meet me at my office at 2pm and we’ll discuss your employment over lunch.”
Judith glared at Hamlin with bloodshot eyes. He gasped and backed away.
“Sleep now. I’ll make you breakfast in the morning.”
Hamlin’s hand trembled as he closed the door. He sat in the chair next to the fire. Normally it took minutes for Hamlin to doze off in that chair, but he couldn’t put Judith’s eyes out of his mind. He tossed and turned till early morning and fell into a restless sleep.
A door handle clicked. Hamlin snapped awake. The fireplace lay lifeless and cold. Grey light seeped through the balcony windows. Hamlin squeezed his iPhone out from under his aching bum. 7:13am! Late for work!
He dragged himself into the kitchen, and cracked two eggs over a pan. His right arm tingled like a million ants crawled under his skin. He sliced a tomato and cut his finger with the knife.
Hamlin sucked the hanging flesh. He rushed to his bedroom door. His hand froze on the handle. Had last night been a dream? Those eyes, those horrible eyes! Were they waiting for him now in his bedroom? Hamlin swallowed hard and creaked open the door. The bed sheets tucked tightly around the mattress as he’d left them the day before. The room smelled of his fabric softener, not the odious stench of a dumpster. Huh! The bathroom!
Hamlin tiptoed to the bathroom, dreading the sight of the walking skeleton that called itself Judith. He listened for a moment then slid the door aside.
His baby-blue towel folded on its rack. The shower, tub, and sink were dry. Hamlin opened the mirror on the wall and pulled out a Band-Aid. He didn’t close it immediately for fear of seeing his nightmare behind him. He quickly bandaged his finger. A burning odor filled his nostrils. He ran to the kitchen and scraped the black crisps onto two plates. He ate one with a bloody slice of tomato, and gagged on the burnt, rusty taste. He tossed the dishes in the sink without bothering to wash them.
Hamlin reapplied deodorant, which only made his un-showered armpits stink worse. He combed back his greasy hair and decided it looked better as bed-head. He snatched his wallet off the nightstand. The feathery weight shocked him. The money was gone! He rummaged through drawers, tore off the bed sheets, and lay flat to check under the bed.
“Judith is real! She must be. I offered her money and she took it. Oh no- I offered her a job. God I hope she buys sunglasses so I won’t have to look her in the eye!”
Hamlin descended to the lobby with a foil wrapped plate in hand. The doorman was different from the night before.
“Did the doorman last night call an ambulance?” Hamlin asked.
“Never told me if he did.” Said the second doorman.
“Dammit! When will he be back?”
Hamlin stormed past the gate. He glanced at the alley across the street. No police tape. Cats prowled around the dumpster with steaming garbage in their mouths. Hamlin tried to distract his racing mind by watching his feet kick garbage and splash through murky puddles.
“Mornin Mista Hamlin.” Buck mumbled. He leaned against a newsstand and blew his nose with strip of advertisements.
“Bad nooz today. Can’t neva tell when tings’ll stop gettin worse. Ain’t theyz worse off enough?”
Hamlin traded foil plate for newspaper and boarded the 187. He pushed the legs of a sleeping hobo off a seat, and collapsed in it. He unfolded the newspaper. Buck had rearranged the stack so that the briefs section became the front page. A circle of dirty encompassed a tiny article:
Woman dies in dumpster accident
CENTRAL CITY-WEST (AP) — Judith Pankova, 37, was found dead yesterday morning at 5:58 AM in the bed of a garbage truck. She had allegedly fallen asleep in a dumpster near the Benington, and was crushed when a garbage truck emptied the dumpster. She was carrying a large sum of money. Investigators suspect foul play.
Hamlin’s eyes bulged and hands squeezed the newspaper. He reread the article then threw it on the floor. He jumped to his feet and paced the bus.
“No! It can’t be. How could she be dead yesterday? She was there. I saw her last night. I heard her leave my room this morning. The money! She took the money!”
“Keep it down will ya!” said a homeless man with bushy eyebrows. Hamlin grabbed the metal bar overhead. The bus twirled around him.
“She is going to meet me for lunch.” He said.
“Onyx Tower.” said the bus driver. Hamlin stumbled off and ascended the black monolith. He locked himself in his office and ordered his secretary to warn him the second someone came asking for him.
The furniture in his office slanted at an angle. Hamlin could feel himself sliding out of his chair like the world tilted to one side. He checked his messages and email. The sounds of the speakerphone went in one ear and out the other. The words on the computer screen made no sense to him. His mind sank into a tar pit of paranoia. Slits of muck peeled open at the bottom revealing Judith’s glaring eyes. The veins pulsed with tar. Hamlin’s lip quivered. Each breath felt like lifting a lead weight.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!
The door handle shook on its locked hinge.
“We’re ruined, Hamlin, ruined! The market’s crashed. Trusperity is sunk!” The words echoed from across a canyon. Hamlin’s hands stretched the skin of his face.
“Again, it’s happening again.” Hamlin said. “The world is collapsing around me, but this time I’m ready. Thousands’ll face foreclosure, and I’ll cut the umbilical cord. I’ll put them on Skid Row with the rest, and they’ll call me their savior.”
Hamlin turned to the giant painting on the wall. Jesus’s eyes reflected the fire of his lantern.
“Is this the thanks I get for saving Judith? Why then do her eyes haunt me!”
CRASH! A chair shattered the window of the neighboring office. Hamlin whipped around in time to see his business partner jump. Down he fell like a car vanishing in the horizon. Green liquid erupted from his body as it splat on the sidewalk. The flashing lights of cop cars buzzed around the base of the tower.
A dozen feet stomped outside Hamlin’s door.
The door swung open. Policemen stormed the room. Hamlin raised his chair and flung it out the window. The police tackled him and pushed his face into the Persian rug.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Judith Pankova!”
“I didn’t murder her!” said Hamlin, “I saved her from the dumpster. It’s impossible. She was dead by the time I found her!”
The cops met the grizzly sight at the base of the tower. A crowd had gathered around the remains. One cop locked Hamlin in the backseat of a police car, while the others went to clean up the mess. A pale woman stood at the edge of the crowd in a smart, new business suit. She glared at Hamlin as the police car pulled away.