Please Help (part one)
The accent came fleetingly to his attention…and he saw no reason to care about it. People came from different places. Milton’s hand moved fish-like, a swath of metal buttons cleared by the gesture. Everywhere they wanted punch-codes.
Easy getting them, though. “Hey, I locked myself out.”
She jabbed out sixteen digits. “You must be new.”
As this was impossible, he hadn’t tried following her finger with his eye…though he liked jotting these things down. Funny how you could come back four years later and the code would be the same.
Milton had charity to sell, another memorial to beg for the building of. People hated to say they wouldn’t give, but often enough they ended up feeling convinced of it. And the picture of the dead soldier was one he’d used for a few years now.
Be rich, putting that across, someone said. Or someone’s television said. He put his ear flat against cold paint. Milton had taken the elevator all the way up (“start at the top”); and that was six floors. The house, he was sure, had a couple more. There was a weird little lobby across, that hit you when the door swooshed open. Ugly carpet, its fiber balled into pill-sized clusters of blue and green. Hard to make those colors clash. And the window was wire inside glass, splintered. Because this shard couldn’t fall out, no one would fix it. Then there was a chair, that would have had a seat made from vinyl straps, but all it had was a metal frame, and a pair of straps to rest your shoulders on.
He looked at all this, then looked at the end of the hall, where a tall window above a slab of marble was cranked open. Milton thought he’d see a roof under this, instead of a drop to the pavement…so that someone might have gone out there. He thought he heard the accented voice again, and that she really was out there, speaking to a friend. She had to have run up the stairs. Six flights, pretty good.
He strolled that way first, rapping knuckles on doors either side. On impulse, waiting for an answer, Milton edged sideways, leaned out…and got a shock. She had a short ponytail, beach sandals on. He saw the hair bob, the sandal smack the heel of one foot. She’d been—within his sight for a moment—at the corner, clinging with one hand to the brick, swinging herself out over nothing. He thought she had actually entered this silent apartment he stood outside of, by climbing in…getting a leg over the windowsill.
What to do, then, but knock loud?
No…Christ! someone said. This was live, Milton thought. He wanted this angry SOB to feel sorry, come out and yell in his face, and feel sorry…that all the guy at the door wanted was a donation. People were not always sorry, of course, and the memorial angle did not always play on their bad consciences. He knocked again, let his knuckles strike sharp, with no special character—no impatience, no wise-guy rhythm.
“Anyone at home?”
The woman put her head through the crack, after a sequence of noises that had sounded to Milton like greater precautions taken than a bolt and chain. He thought she’d moved a piece of furniture. She hadn’t been careful to keep sarcasm, or maybe real exasperation, out of her voice.
Over her head, he could see well enough that the room was not furnished, and a man inside crouched on the floor, intent on something the door blocked from view.
“I think you should let him in.”
Whoever said this, it didn’t matter. Milton was going to ask for ten bucks, and if that was a lot, he’d ask for five. He had no rules about visible wealth, or visible poverty…there didn’t seem to be any rules, as to whether people would give or not. In the best of neighborhoods, they might as easily call the cops.
She was giving him a chin-up scrutiny. Then she backed away, widening the door’s gap. He said at once, “I’m collecting.” He had the brochure in his hand, and held it out to her. He saw for himself that there was a mattress on the floor, a stack of plastic silverware and restaurant styrofoam, one that had grown and tipped…ketchup packages inching off like slugs, a water bottle sitting half-full. The woman lying on the mattress seemed to be groping after this.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)