Veering away from light and warmth, the little planet rode its ellipse out to the far, dark, cold end of its orbit.
The cold hasn’t locked down yet and, for January, Dox figured this wasn’t too bad but he did wish it would stop raining. He ambled into a back alley, thinking he could flip a dumpster lid open, jam it against the wall and tuck in under it for the night. When he first saw the rolled up blanket he knew it was going to be nothing but trouble but grabbed that soft, sweet comforter off the ground anyway. With the rain it was already colder than last night and, yeah, so Dox had been out here on the streets for long enough to roll with just about anything…but the minute that blanket was in his arms he knew it was worth anything to have that wrapped around him.
Now Dox was your textbook homeless case. When he was back in like the eighth grade or something a teacher told him he had the reverse Midas touch: everything he touched turned to shit. He spit on the floor and walked out of school for good. He’d run drugs for awhile but got strung out quick and no one would trust him with their product. He stole stuff. He begged on the trains. He stayed with all his sisters, his Grandma and even a couple of cousins who all got wise to his shit and tossed him after a week or so.
He just wished tonight he could find a better place to hide with his blanket, but settled for the dumpster off in the far end of the alley. Finally he sank down under the blanket and was warm. Really warm for the first time since mid-October. Wherever the blanket touched him, the hard metal and concrete was softened. He hadn’t been able to get enough money together to pick up a shortie but somehow he was asleep almost instantly. Deeply asleep. Asleep like a little kid who has nothing to worry about in all the world.
Dreams came for the first time in years. Dox quit dreaming back in that first year after he lost his place and got kicked out of the shelter system; nights were too awful even if he did manage to fall off somehow for a couple of hours. But now here was all the color and strange beauty; he was curled up next to his mother and they were handing each other flowers that were lit up like Christmas ornaments and that smelled like apple pies baking. His body was safe, he was happy without a bit of caution in any direction. At some point he lifted easily into the air, kissing her cheek and flew high into the clouds. In the periphery of his vision he was aware of darkness gathering, but being all safe and secure he soared in great swooping arcs, playing.
The dark roared around him from all sides and he fell from the sky, landing behind a dumpster in the rain with two guys laughing and going off with his blanket. With a scream like a deranged animal, Dox launched himself at the two. The skinny one, moving like a dancer, swung around and Dox only saw the glint of the blade for about a second before it disappeared into his belly. In the hours it took for him to bleed out and die Dox never was able to get back to his mother’s arms. He died in the dark.
Willie and Spit had been running together for only a couple weeks now, but they were pretty ok together. Neither trusted the other but both knew it and so it worked. They’d hit some corner stores but both agreed that roughing up the bums was always safe and usually kind of fun. They mostly just got wadded up dollar bills and half empty shorties but every so often they hit a newbie who still had good shoes and maybe a couple of twenties.
People around this part of town gave the two a lot of room; trouble this bad was easy to see coming. Once some big, fat guy tried to brain Spit with a length of rebar and no one’s seen him on the lines for the soup kitchen or working the trains since. Spit figured he probably would have clocked the guy and left it at that but that was the night that he saw how down dirty mean that Willie really was.
See Spit still had family that would try to look out for him. His youngest kid would come down to the mission sometimes with blankets and sandwiches. Lately, though, he had been seen cuffing the kid, telling him not to be coming around here no more. Spit hated doing that; the way little Markie looked at him that day was going to hurt for a long time. But he was committed now, no going back. And he knew that no one could count on one more night’s peace with Willie on the move. Better for Markie to hate his worthless Daddy than to be dead in some gutter.
No one knew where Willie was from; he was not a talker. He kind of showed up at the mission one day, stole the Sister’s collection box and went on a bender. That bender finished up in central booking where Willie got himself a couple of weeks of R&R. Then he was back. No one was happy about that, not even Spit, but he also couldn’t help being drawn to such unrepentant darkness. When Willie said let’s go hit a liquor store, that seemed like a good enough way to pass a Tuesday night. Then, there you go, he’s all in.
They tore on down through a couple of alleys and under the over pass by the park where it’s good and dark and usually dry. Willie jerked his head and so Spit spread out the blanket for them. They had some booze, so they might as well chill out of the rain for awhile. It would just be real bad luck for anyone to try this particular short cut tonight is all.
And man, maybe Willie didn’t feel it (although that look on his seamed, dirty face said he might), but stretching out on that blanket was like being on the most comfortable bed in the city. The hard concrete was gone from under it and both men eased on down into comfort like they had forgotten existed.
“You got any family anywhere, Willie?” Spit passed the bottle, so comfortable he forgot that you don’t be asking Willie nothing.
“None to speak of.” Willie took a long pull and handed it back, sort of surprised at himself. He hadn’t given two thoughts to his wife and boys in such a long time that he was actually kind of shocked to remember that he had once been a dad with a job and a car and a mortgage.
Sinking into the warmth, Willie could smell his wife’s scented sweat at the end of a long summer day and the damnedest thing began to happen. Willie, the meanest motherfucker on the street, began to cry. Tears coursed down his dirty cheeks, carving two white lines from his eyes to his jaw. Spit pretended not to see but that wasn’t going to save him. He guessed he knew how this was going to go but there was no way in the world he was getting off this blanket. He hadn’t felt like this in, well, ever.
When the first joggers and dog walkers got into the park the next morning, the 911 calls began popping. Grimes took the call; he hadn’t been in the park much yet this year and hadn’t been around for that double shooting down by the river. He’d been in Homicide for twenty years now and had that good tough shell that didn’t let anything in to hurt him. This one was easy. Couple of bums must have had it out. The fat one looks like he gave as good as he got, the skinny one was in worse shape. Grimes circled the two entwined bodies, looking for that whatever it was that had to be found. He nudged the surprisingly clean comforter that had gotten shoved over to the side, reached down to touch it and mysteriously found himself bundling it up and hiding it off to the side under some bushes. Stepping back, he was satisfied that it wouldn’t be seen easily and went on back to the scene of the crime.
Grimes didn’t know why he waited until midnight to go back for that blanket, but he was glad for how cold it had gotten. No one was around. He went directly to where he’d hidden the thing and dug it out, not being careful or cautious at all. He didn’t even look around to make sure no one was seeing him and his treasure.
With decades on the job and a lifetime in the city Grimes wasn’t a careless man. He was alive and didn’t need to be in therapy because of that. And yet. Something about that blanket; here he was taking stupid chances and not caring a bit. He did, at least, stay off the path and up there in the low brush. Oliver Michael Grimes sat on the ground and pulled that magical comforter around him rocking like a child. At last he wasn’t the one in charge. He didn’t have to figure anything out. The cold ground went warm. His stiff, locked, cautious body softened and muscles lengthened, warmed and relaxed. Grimes tucked himself into the template of childhood and fell asleep.
Waking to the first stirrings of birds and that foreign-looking sunrise, Grimes, stretched in his safety and felt incredibly wonderful. He rose easily, no stiffness, no lingering ache from a thousand stressful yesterdays. Folding his treasure under his arm, Grimes made his way back down to the path, ignoring the early morning types who ignored him.
When he got home, Grimes’ ease began to slip. He hurried to the bedroom and wrapped himself in the answer. But nothing happened. It was just a nice, comfy blanket and that heavenly relief was gone. A fury rose but Grimes was a disciplined man and he had to get in to work. He knew that when Jim got home, he’d be all where’d you get this thing? Jim, a real sweetheart of a guy, was still too much of a woman sometimes and Grimes found himself lying to Jim the way he used to lie to Maeve when they were married. He folded the thing up and tucked it away in the bottom drawer of the dresser in the guest room forgetting that Jim’s cousin was coming that night.
Marissa arrived around dinner-time before Grimes was home and in time to help Jim put the meal on the table. They fell into their old rhythm and Jim didn’t press her on the recent troubles. He knew she wouldn’t have much to say anyway. While she tossed the salad he went in to finish preparing the spare room and put extra towels out for her. Both Jim and Marissa were only children who had latched onto each other as kids and hadn’t really let go. They knew things about each other that no one else did.
Jim rooted around in the hallway closet but only found that old quilt from Granny Arthur; the one Marissa would not want to sleep under. He went back into the room to check in there for an extra blanket; it was cold again tonight. And this was just the beginning of real winter. For some reason that didn’t make any sense, since he would never put blankets in dresser drawers and Mike didn’t do housework of any description, Jim pulled that bottom drawer open and there it was. Just like some part of him had known it would be. Sinking his hands into the white of the blanket he felt like he was about to give his Marissa something unwanted and precious at the same time.
Mike was late getting home. That was nothing new, but he sure was jumpy and irritable when he did get in. That, too, was kind of standard some nights. Jim let Marissa know with a quick glance that this was just Mike being Mike. This wasn’t the first time Marissa had been over for a night or two so Mike should have been used to how quiet she usually was but tonight he seemed almost rudely intent on getting her to talk. When that failed he resorted to graphic highlights of the week’s top ten. Jim was used to this and had once kind of gotten off on it; the weird thrill of having a lover who was intimate with violent death almost daily.
Tonight it was unwelcome. Mike pushed it; going on about a couple of bums who it looked like had killed each other in the park. Marissa pushed her food around her plate and waited. Jim was about to jump in when Mike stopped abruptly. Around the table the three were silent. Jim rose to clear the dishes and Marissa excused herself. Mike had already looked into the spare room so his mood had been sour from the minute dinner had begun. Now he slid in there while Jim and Marissa were busy in the kitchen to fondle the corner of the blanket. Then to pull that corner up to his face and bathe in the quiet sensation of all being right. He thought about Marissa’s sad face and smoothed the blanket leaving the room and thinking he could be a generous man just this once.
Marissa wasn’t sleepy but went on ahead to bed when Jim and Mike called it a night. She had forgotten her book. Nothing on Jim’s shelves interested her. When she sat on the edge of the bed to pull off her shoes she was a little surprised that the low grade constant ache in her back seemed to have let up. No doctor in the last five years had come up with an answer. It had become something she adjusted to, being in pain all the time. Now the pain was gone. She stood up. A twinge, nothing more. She walked around the room and felt it return like an annoying neighbor coming home to crank up the stereo and yell at the kids.
Still, for a minute there, for the first time in years, it had let up. That had to be a good sign. She undressed, pulled on a night shirt and got into bed. The sensation of well-being was immediate and overwhelming. She sank into a place of complete comfort and ease. In her dreams, she floated through a benevolent universe, befriending small galaxies and bestowing blessings on passing comets. Then, in the darkest part of the night, she woke up and was gripped with a stark, unreasoning terror. She had to have this blanket. She couldn’t leave Jim’s without it. Curiously, that warmth cushioned her ever more lovingly as she considered her options.
Both men were puzzled to find the spare room empty in the morning and Marissa gone. Mike, however, was less puzzled. After all, the blanket was gone, too. He thought about making a couple of calls. She couldn’t really get away. But a great weariness hit and he couldn’t summon the energy to go after her or that damned blanket. Let it fuck with her head.
In the end, Marissa didn’t leave a note. She couldn’t think of what to say, so she just gave up and left with the blanket crammed into her overnight bag and half the stuff she brought left behind in Jim’s dresser. She’d call him later or something.
On the train back up to home, she kept the overnight bag on her lap with the zipper half pulled back so she could keep a hand in on the blanket. It calmed her even if she felt a little silly. The sky was heavy and stuffed with dark clouds and, just as the train pulled into her station, the snow began to fall. She used to like winter but now it just made her hurt worse. Maxwell wasn’t there to meet her and for a second she had that old flash of annoyance; why couldn’t he ever just be on time? Then she remembered that he wasn’t expecting her until tomorrow. She tried calling but got the machine at home and no answer on his mobile phone.
She walked over to where one of the three cabs in town was waiting and took that home. His truck wasn’t there and the house was cold. She goosed the thermostat and went straight up to bed with the blanket. It passed through her mind that she should probably eat something but then went upstairs anyway. Nothing else mattered right now. She didn’t even undress; just kicked her shoes off and wrapped herself in her haven. It didn’t even surprise her much that it wasn’t like last night. Drugs were like that she remembered that from every surgery over the past decade. You took what you could find there and didn’t expect too much.
Maxwell was sure he’d left the heat off when he left yesterday afternoon to spend the night with Pauline and was confused to come home to a warm house. His stomach sank thinking of what story to come up with if Marissa was home early. Sure enough, there she was all wrapped up in a blanket and sound asleep when he got upstairs. He wished he hadn’t had those two beers before leaving Paulina’s, but snuggled up gently next to his sleeping wife, being very careful not to jostle her. She murmured and rolled into his arms.