In the Shadows, by Debi Orton.
Esther didn't like going out alone, not into the world the way it was today. It simply wasn't safe.
But Agnes said that it was too hot for her to go out, and Grace was still recovering from the heat stroke that had sent her to the emergency room on Friday. So Esther clutched her purse to her chest and gingerly shuffled the two blocks to St. Xavier. By the time she waddled into the vestibule of the church, she was out of breath, hot and sweaty.
The holy water in the font felt so cool to her touch that she wanted to sink her hands and arms into the deep pool and splash it all over her red face. When mass was over, she knelt and said a prayer for her friends' recovery and for her safe return home.
The temperature had risen while she'd been in the church, and the perspiration was beading again before she'd even shambled down the steps. Her fat thighs rubbed together and they'd be raw by the time she got home.
In the early sixties, when the Towers had first been built, the neighborhood had been mostly Italian. The four towers, each twenty floors tall and surrounding a center courtyard, seemed like behemoths overlooking all of the flat-roofed, one-story buildings that surrounded them. A former resident had bought the lot directly across the street and had cleared it to make way for a pocket park. Some dying grass, a couple of stunted trees and several benches now overlaid with unintelligible graffiti were all that remained of the altruistic gesture. A bar sat along one edge of it; a liquor store along the other.
At night, Esther watched drug deals taking place there now. But over the past couple of weeks, a new phenomenon had taken over the park. Each day, more and more of the homeless men from the Spanish American park downtown were migrating up Central Avenue. Abe was the first one to mention it, when Esther and Grace and Agnes had been playing bridge with Abe's wife Lydia. "Goddamn winos," he'd said contemptuously. "What the hell are they doing now, coming up here to steal our social security checks?" Lydia rolled her eyes and told them not to pay any attention to Abe. But they'd all seen the numbers of homeless men grow each day until now, there were twenty or thirty of them lounging around in the park at any given time.
At night, Esther heard cries, and when she dared to look outside, she saw the young men who usually claimed the park at night beating the drunks, taking any cash they found on them. They crowed when they found something, howling in the night like wolves.
There were rumors running rampant throughout the complex about confrontations between the residents and the homeless men, tales of threats and muggings and close calls. A petition had been circulated demanding better police protection, but nothing seemed to change.
In the drugstore down the street from the church, Esther picked up a prescription for Grace and a box of Epsom salts for Agnes. It was her good deed for the day. Back out on the street, the sun was merciless. Esther forced herself to concentrate on how cool it would be in the Towers' air-conditioned lobby. She stopped for a moment, reached into her purse for a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from her forehead and out of her eyes. She mopped the moisture from the back of her neck and shifted her purse strap from where it had chafed her shoulder. She only had a few steps to go to reach the shadow of the Towers, and it would be cooler.
Concentrating to focus her eyes in the dramatically different light, she put one foot in front of the other as she stuffed the handkerchief back in her purse. She'd only taken six steps when she realized someone was following close behind her. Fear made her nerves tingle, and she clutched at her purse. She turned to find one of the homeless men, with a bag in his hand.
"What do you want?" she demanded, surprised to hear the accusatory tone in her voice.
"You dropped this, ma'am, " he said, and tipped his captain's cap to her as he bowed and extended the bag toward her. "When you was puttin' your handkerchief back."
Esther, confused, looked at the package in her hand. She'd left the drugstore with two bags; now there was only one."Thank you," she said sheepishly and reached for the bag. "I didn't realize I'd dropped it."
"No trouble, ma'am," the man said. Then, he held up his hand as Esther began rummaging in her purse for some change, "Oh, no, ma'am, that's not necessary. Just doin' my good deed for the day."
Esther looked up at him, recognizing him as one of the first of the homeless men to take up residence in the pocket park. "Are you sure?"
He shook his head. "I won't take your money." Esther looked at the man appraisingly. "You're new around here, aren't you?"
The man nodded. "Only been in this neighborhood a couple of weeks."
"Why did you come here?" Esther asked. Her voice was gentle, and she hoped the man didn't hear another accusation in it.
"They kicked us out of the park downtown," he said. "We been livin' down there for years, but they said we got no rights." Esther detected no bitterness in his voice.
"So why here?"
He gestured toward the towers. "Only place in town that's in the shade all day. It's been damned hot this summer."
Esther nodded. "Thank you," she said, and began walking toward the door, feeling more comfortable already.
Debi Orton is an writer and artist living on the banks of the Hudson River in rural upstate New York. Since she started writing seriously in 2001, Debi's essays have been broadcast by the Albany, NY NPR affiliate WAMC, and her fiction work has appeared in The Paumanok Review, E2K, Mindprints, The Independent Mind, Bulk Head, Kelvin, Agrippina, the-phone-book.com, and flashquake (www.flashquake.org), an online journal for which she's the publisher and chief editor. Debi participates in several online workshops and is a member of the Washington County Writers and Poets Association. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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