The Sign

— Steven Wojtowicz

There’s a knock at the door. A black dog jumped off the couch and barked.

“You answer it.”

“Why me?”

“I’m not wearing a bra, and my nipples are sticking out of my shirt.”

Maria rubbed her sleepy eyes. Edward rolled off the couch, knelt by the dog and whispered, “Pepper, calm down boy, calm down.”

Another couple raps at the door. Pepper barked louder.

“Can you hold him?” Edward asked.

Maria held the dog by the collar and patted his head.

Red mesh shorts lay on the floor next to a purple shirt. Edward put them both on. A pair of sunglasses sat on the white granite kitchen island. The sunglasses had dark lenses and white frames. He put those on too.

“How much should we tip?” asked Edward.

Maria mouthed, I don’t know.

Edward opened the door and fumbled through his wallet. A slender man with a beard and black spandex pants stood in the doorway. He held two cups of coffee and a bike helmet under his arm.

“That’ll be $5.50,” the man said.

Edward handed him a ten and asked, “Did you bike here?”

“Yes.”

“And when you’re biking around, the coffee stays warm?”

“Yes. The cups are insulated, that way it keeps the liquid inside warm. Or if it was a cold drink, like soda and ice, it would keep that cold.”

Edward shut the door and asked Maria, “Was he being a smart ass?”

Maria held out her hand for the coffee, took a big gulp and swished it around her rosy cheeks. Then she closed her eyes and smelled the dark roast.

Edward took a big, hearty swig, squinted his eyes, wiggled his lips and said, “This coffee is terrible. I can’t believe I spent ten dollars for two cups of stale, lukewarm coffee.”

Edward sat by the window. Rays of sun beamed through the airy apartment. Puffy clouds hung in the sky above the sprawling city landscape. The skyline was dotted with construction cranes, the Sears Tower, the Prudential Building, old church steeples, and bumper-to-bumper street corners.

The window was the centerpiece of the room; it stretched from one wall to the other and went from the floor to the ceiling. Most visitors would comment on the view, and say something like ‘this view is brilliant’. Then Maria would always follow it up by saying she loved the way the clouds rolled in off the lake; and sometimes, during thunderstorms, it looks ominous, she would say.

The apartment was modern, on the fifth floor of a fourteen-floor building, open floor plan with dark hardwood that gleamed through the kitchen and living room. The white walls and cabinets sparkled. A fake plastic plant in the corner. Framed pictures of white birch trees hung on the walls.

Maria and Edward didn’t know too many other people in the building, except for the doorman named Earl. A young woman with short blonde hair lived across the hallway. Once Edward helped the woman carry in a wooden framed mirror because it was too heavy for her. She was nice, but they never caught her name.

Maria sat at the island in the kitchen, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and heated up a bag of popcorn in the microwave. She cut the crust off the multigrain bread. Edward read from his tablet. He looked for a place to watch fireworks that night.

It was the 4th of July.

“They have fireworks in Pilsen,” he said.

The popcorn popped.

“Too many Hispanics in Pilsen,” replied Maria. “I don’t like the smell of chorizo from all the food trucks.”

The popcorn then began to smoke from the microwave. Maria pulled out the bag and it was black at the bottom. “Crap,” she said. She walked to the window, opened it and tried her best to fan out the smoke. The window overlooked an intersection to a highway. She shadowed her eyes with the bridge of her hand and saw a man walking back and forth, carrying a foam cup.

“I’m jealous of the homeless,” said Maria. “They always have nice tans. Getting a tan is always such an effort for me. For these guys, it just comes with territory.”

Pepper whimpered at Edward’s feet. Edward found his bowl in corner and filled it with kibble. Pepper gulped the meal down in about twenty seconds. Edward then filled his bowl with fresh water.

“And if you really look at them,” continued Maria, “and look at their eyes, they always look like they have a good story to tell. Like whatever they have to say wouldn’t be a bore. They have that disheveled, mysterious look.”

Maria continued to fan to smoke out the window. Edward turned his attention to the homeless man.

“He looks like the guy that delivered the coffee,” said Edward.

“It looks nothing like him,” replied Maria.

“All white guys with beards look the same,” replied Edward, scratching his beard.

Maria stopped fanning the smoke, but she still stood by the window, wide eyed, her fingers against the glass. “Being homeless seems like a pretty carefree way to be, too. All they really have to worry about is getting a bit to eat, here and there. I think about my day, all the things I have to worry about, it’s pretty complex stuff. Take my mornings, for example, jump in the shower, shave my legs, blow dry, put on makeup, pick out something out to wear, fix a breakfast, run to the coffee shop for a skinny latte, and if I’m running late the line is always so long.” ​Maria nibbled at pieces of the popcorn that weren’t burnt. “I guess, to think about it more, and not be naïve about it, they do have couple more things to worry about. I’m sure finding a place to shit would be a concern. It would be kind of awkward to be shitting behind a building and have someone walk up on you. What would you say, ‘don’t mind me, just taking a dump over here.’?”

Edward’s eyes were fixed on his tablet. “We could just bite the bullet and go to Navy Pier for fireworks. Deal with the crowds for one night.”

Maria flipped Pepper a few pieces of popcorn. “I hope this doesn’t sounds snotty, but this homeless guy is pretty lazy. He doesn’t have a sign. I think it’s pretty important to have one. The signs give you a little insight to the person. You can see their handwriting. Know a bit more about their plight. And I kind of like the signs, generally. They usually have something about religion, like, ‘God bless you’. I like being blessed.” Maria sipped her coffee and paced back and forth. “I wonder if the homeless have an arts and crafts day? Do they spend a few hours collecting good pieces of cardboard and then pool together markers and pens to knock out a few signs? Did this guy miss that day?”

“I think a foam cup is all you need. Less is best,” said Edward with a sigh. “But seriously, I’m trying to find a nice a place for us to watch fireworks tonight and you keep going on about this homeless guy. If you’re so concerned he doesn’t have a sign, then why don’t you bring him one.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” said Maria. She walked to closet and rummaged through it. Pepper followed her and wagged his tail. She pulled out a broken-down cardboard box and ripped off the side.

“Better yet, if you think homeless is such a great, carefree way to be, then you should do it. Be homeless.”

Maria trimmed off the side of the cardboard with scissors to make a clean, nice square. “Be homeless,” she said with a half-smile. “Can you imagine that? Think about it, the guts it would take to say, fuck it, I’m going to live on the streets.” She closed her eyes, thought about it, and concluded, “I just don’t think I’d have it in me.”

Edward put his coffee in the microwave and ate popcorn. Maria found a large felt tip black marker from a drawer and drew a few lines on a paper bag to make sure it worked. “It’s hot out. I should bring him some water.” She pulled a water bottle from the refrigerator and then stopped. “Homeless people like to drink, right?” She put back the water and pulled out two cans of beer.

Edward folded his arms against his chest and peered at Maria through his black and white sunglasses.

Maria put on a red and blue dress and grabbed a handbag. “I love this dress for the 4th of July, don’t you?” Edward threw away the popcorn. Maria looked in a mirror and straightened her dress. “Okay, keep an eye on me, my love. In case he tries to steal my purse or grab my boob or something fishy like that.” Maria kissed Edward on the cheek. She patted Pepper on the head, grabbed the cardboard, the marker and the two cold beers and walked out the door.

Maria went down the long hallway and waited at the end for the elevator to arrive. On the elevator, a woman in running gear held her dog on a leash.

“Cute dog,” said Maria. “What’s his name?”

“Max,” replied the woman.

Maria petted the dog. “Max sure does drool a lot,” said Maria as she wiped her hand on the cardboard. The woman rolled her eyes.

The elevator door opened. Maria skipped out the door and passed the doorman. “Hiya Earl, how’s it cookin’?” Earl was trying to sleep. He nodded his head without looking up.

Outside, the sun was blazing. Couples walked by, held hands and laughed. Cars honked their horns. Maria scurried to the middle of the street, near the homeless man. He wore a dirty white t-shirt, was unshaven and jingled his foam cup.

Maria fumbled with the cardboard. The man turned, and looked at her quizzically.

“Here, this is for you,” said Maria, holding out the cardboard and felt pen. “I figured if you made a sign you could drum up some more business. Maybe you write something, like ‘God bless you’ on the sign.”

Maria set down the cardboard and marker on the concrete medium where he stood. “I’ll just leave these here,” she said.

Then she asked him, “Would you like a beer?”

“It’s been ages since I’ve had a cold one,” answered the man.

“I’m sure it has,” replied Maria, with a smile and a wink.

The man cracked open the beer, took a long gulp and grinned. Maria opened her can and took a swig too.

“You know, I have question for you, a personal one, if you don’t mind?” Maria asked.

The man nodded.

“Were you ever shitting outside and someone walked up on you, caught you shitting?”

“Yea,” said the man with a chuckle. “More times than I’d like to admit.”

“Is it pretty awkward?”

“It sure is.”

“I knew it,” said Maria, a glimmer in her eye. “I knew it.”

They laughed together and drank their cold beer on that hot summer afternoon. A firework shot up in the sky and burst a few blocks away. A circle shape, with white and red sparks against the crisp blue sky.

 


 

Steven Wojtowicz is a native of La Grange, IL and his background includes work in community journalism, being a first responder and teaching overseas. He has recently completed his first novel.