THE KING OF THE BOOT-STOMP GHETTO
By Blake Rose
The mousy girl at the front desk gave Alec a room pretty high up, not a penthouse, but still high enough that, if he stood on the balcony, he could see the whole north side of downtown. That’s where all the banks and other businesses are. Even farther beyond that he could see the shore. There are stalls all along the west side selling fresh caught fish, mostly trout and snapper he imagined. The shore stretches east to the Boot-stomp Ghetto, Boot-stomp for short. It’s basically a glorified camping ground for homeless people. The homeless shelter is just a converted Catholic church across the street facing the shore.
Alec found it easier just to get a room for the night, than to drive forty-five minutes from West Haven at eight in the morning then have to find somewhere to park that didn’t charge him the same price as the room. Besides, he really needed to get away. The bills would still be there, in a haphazard tower, threatening more than just the integrity of his desk when he returned.
Alec’s brother, Ben, had just taken up residency among the riffraff down in the Boot-stomp Ghetto. The way Alec figured it, he was going to need most of the day just to find Ben.
Then there was the whole business of getting his mom’s necklace back. He knew for a fact Ben would not want to part with it. The necklace was worthless, a plastic fake pearl affair, but it meant the world to his mom. His dad had given it to her as a gift a week before he passed for their fiftieth anniversary.
Alec sat a glass of scotch on the bedside table next to his copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” and a Gideon bible. He sat in the bed and started reading the book, stopping occasionally to take a sip of the liquor; his hopes for the impending confrontation with his brother began to wane as he read.
About a chapter and a half later, and Alec found that he had read the same paragraph three times.
The phone began to ring, the room began to brighten; Alec picked up the phone and croaked, “Hello?”
The voice that was too jovial for this early in the morning said, “Hello! This is Agamemnon from the front desk with your eight A.M. wake-up call!”
“Thanks,” Alec said, shielding his eyes from the window.
The closet door slid silently on its tracks and Alec stared longingly at his suit. He couldn’t remember the last time he had worn a t-shirt and jeans, discounting when he wore them for yard work.
In the bathroom, while slathering shaving cream on his jaws, Alec looked nonplussed at the mirror, and said, “Did that guy just say his name was Agamemnon?”
He received no answer.
On second thought, he washed off the shaving cream. Clean-shaven wasn’t really fitting for a jaunt through the Boot-stomp. He removed his wallet, took out a twenty-dollar bill to slip in his sock, and put it in the hotel safe with his watch and cellphone.
As Alec left his room, the door shut with an ominous click behind him. It was then that he realized the room key was still in his wallet. In the safe. In the room.
On the way to the Boot-stomp, he saw a Greek diner that now occupied the space where an ice-cream parlor once was. His parents took the family there every Saturday after the cinema. He wished things were still that simple. He wished his biggest worries were whether he should choose chocolate pecan or rainbow sherbet. The sense of nostalgia, like curling smoke, invaded his thoughts. He recalled a scene wherein Ben and he, were arguing about something, the specifics of which eluded him, and hurling gummy bears across the booths at each other. He remembered thinking that all he could do was to attempt not to hit anyone in the crossfire.
Alec snapped out of the haze when a woman started screaming at him, “You spilled the milk!” Her voice trailed off at the end of the statement, like she had forgotten that she was just chastising him. As the woman made her way toward him, he noticed that she had “666” tattooed across her forehead.
Alec actually thought his heart stopped for a moment. She stormed right passed him and continued yelling at nobody. She held her finger at a slight upward angle and jabbed it repeatedly at the same spot. A sharp breath of cool air filled his lungs. He had not realized that he had been holding his breath.
As Alec traversed the next couple of blocks, deeper into the heart of the Boot-stomp, he caught the hordes of unwavering stares. Despite his attempts to blend in, it seemed to him that he still looked like he did not belong in this veritable hooverville. Alec admired the human ability to adapt in the form of several abandoned buildings turned shelters for the forsaken, when a man carrying a dog much to large for that sort of treatment approached him with squinted eyes shouting, “Excuse me! Sir!” During what appeared to be an ongoing struggle to keep his grip on the dog, the man asked, “Do you have a cigarette? I’ll buy one from you. I found a dollar and if you’re selling cigarettes at a quarter a piece that’s four cigarettes. And if you don’t have change, sir you’ll have to do four of ‘em. How’s that sound? Four cigarettes?” The man’s gaze promptly shot down to the dog which just stared out apathetically at Alec.
Alec said, “Uh, I don’t smoke. I’m sorry.”
“I see you looking at Furlong. I’ll let you pet him if I can have a cigarette.”
“I’m not lying, I don’t have a cigarette.”
“Of course, you have a cigarette, I can tell. You look like a smoker.”
Alec was beginning to lose his patience. He couldn’t tell if he was getting upset at the man’s persistence or the fact that he had just been told he looked like a smoker. For the life of him, Alec couldn’t imagine what a smoker looked like when they weren’t holding a cigarette. He kept imagining regular people holding a cigarette. After all isn’t that what a smoker is, a person with a cigarette. Then he realized that it was this line of thought that he was losing patience with. In a desperate attempt to shift the man’s, and his, focus away from cigarettes, Alec asked, “Did you say his name was Furlong?”
“Yup, he’s called Furlong on account of his long white fur. Clever, isn’t it? But I didn’t name him, that was Smiley.”
“Is he, uh, Smiley’s dog then?”
“No, he’s everyone’s dog. It’s just my turn to take care of him today. Everybody has to; it’s like a … what did he call it. A rotation, yeah, a rotation. Smiley says, ‘you guys need to learn some responsibility.’ With his help we’ll back on our feet in no time.” He glanced down, placed his cheek on the top of Furlong’s head, struggled to readjust him, then added, “Isn’t that right Furlong.”
Alec had trouble discerning how the dog felt about the situation. Judging by the look in its eyes, the creature was either simply ambivalent or had accepted this fate long ago. “Well anyway,” Alec said, retracting the hand that he had proffered to pet the dog, and rubbing the back of his neck instead. The prospect of fleas forced him to think better of the idea. “I’m looking for someone, his name’s, uh, Ben.”
The man leaned to one side, nearly dropping Furlong in the process, and looked suspiciously behind Alec. “Are you sure about the cigarettes, I really will give you money for them.”
“I don’t doubt that but I’m sorry, I don’t have any cigarettes. Do you know—”
“Is this man bothering you Jamie?” A hand fell on Alec’s left shoulder and a man’s voice boomed authoritatively in his ear.
Startled, Alec spun around to face a man sporting not a Hemingway beard, not a Verne beard, but a Whitman beard. His hair was long too. This man’s small eyes and nose were all that remained at the bottom of the vortex of scraggly wisps.
Jamie glanced at the new man, then shifted his gaze to Alec and back to the man. “Hey Smiley! Will you tell this man to sell me some cigarettes? He’s holding out on me.”
“Holding out? I’m not holding out on anyone. Listen, if I had cigarettes, I’d sell you some. Hell, I’d just give them to you, but I don’t smoke.” The exchange had become entirely too exhausting.
Smiley made his way over to Jamie and rubbed Furlong behind his ear. Furlong’s leg began twitch in a mock scratch motion. “Jamie, this poor man sounds like he’s told you that he doesn’t smoke a few too many times already. Don’t you have something better to do than harass him?”
Jamie looked slightly offended. “I guess I’ll go see if anyone else will sell me some cigarettes. See, I found this dollar, but I don’t have change. If they sell them to me for a quarter a piece, I’ll get four cigarettes.”
“Well, you’ve got to find someone that has cigarettes first.”
Jamie walked back the way that Alec had come. As he went, he continued mumbling to himself.
“Unless they gave me change first. Yeah! Then maybe I could get three cigarettes, or two, or even just one. I’d like four that would last me longer than —”
Presently, Smiley turned back to Alec. “So, how the hell have you been big brother?”
“Ben, is that you under there? I didn’t recognize you with all the, uh, facial hair.”
“That’s it? That’s why you came? To insult this work of art?” He ran his fingers through his beard. “And to think you haven’t even offered to buy your little brother lunch yet. What manners!”
They both looked at each other, and immediately began laughing. “Work of art, that’s a good one. It’s a work of something alright, a piece of work. Yeah, sure, I’ll buy lunch. I think I saw a Greek place on the way over, Hermes’ Deli or something like that.”
“It’s just Hermes’, no deli. The fries there are pretty good, but that’s all I’ve had. Sounds good to me.”
They began walking back toward the restaurant, staying on the opposite side of the street that Jamie was on, lest they convince him once more that Alec had no cigarettes.
“Ben,” said Alec. “I didn’t come all the way out here just to chit-chat. I actually need to talk to you about something important.”
“I know why you came to see me. Alec, it might seem like I’m not playing with a full deck but I’m not stupid. Can’t we sit down as brothers and have a meal together. I’d like to catch up before we start talking about why you’re here.”
“Yeah, alright. I guess it would be nice to catch up. It’s been a long time since we’ve actually seen each other.”
Alec paid for their food —two gyro meals that came with fries and a drink— and handed Ben his cup. He stood watching as the man behind the counter sliced strips from an unidentifiable upright spindle of meat and plopped them on the pita.
Ben had already found a table that looked out onto the street. Alec sat the plastic tray, atop which two greasy bags were perched, on the table as he slid into the booth. He said, “So, Ben, it seems like you made some friends.”
“Friends? I don’t know,” Ben said, unwrapping his gyro.
“Well, that guy I talked to— you know, with the dog — he acted like he really looked up to you.”
“Jamie doesn’t look up to me. You have to understand most of the people out here need help.”
“So, are you saying that this is just a cry?” Alec pointed at Ben with a fry.
“A cry? For help? Oh Lord no,” Ben said, laughing. “It just makes me feel important. Like I actually matter, you know. I live here to help these people. God knows they won’t help themselves.”
“Ben, I’m sorry but I hope you know how ridiculous you sound right now,” He said, raising his eyebrows and threatening Ben with the French fry once again. It felt like Ben was being a little harsh which made it all the odder that he somewhat understood where he was coming from.
“How so?” Ben said as a genuine look of concern fell across his eyes.
“You’re telling me that you intentionally became homeless and found somewhere to sleep in the Boot-stomp because you wanted to do charity work?” Alec began raising his voice and by doing this gaining the unwanted attention of the nearby tables and one employee taking out the trash. He quickly lowered his voice to the appropriate level of the common restaurant conversation.
“Holy shit! What is this sauce? It is delicious, and what kind of meat is this?” Ben said, changing the subject; he obviously felt the tension rise in the restaurant too. Maybe this was his way of cutting it.
“And what’s this nonsense you’re spouting about actually mattering?” Ben warily spared a sidelong glance at the table next to theirs.
“So, this is a gyro. This is what I have been missing my whole life.” The statement sounded so full of excitement that Alec would not have been surprised if Ben had said that he wanted to have the last bite bronzed.
“Ben,” he said. He was happy that his brother liked the food, but Alec was not about to be ignored.
“I think this might be my new favorite food.”
“What, Alec! What! Do you want me to tell you that yes, I came here to help people, or no and I’m miserable?” Ben asked in a tone somewhere between a pleading child’s and full-grown man washed with defeat. “You can’t put me in traps like that. On one hand, I look silly for making what is plainly put, a bad decision. And if I admit to you how hard it can be out here you and Mom will just say, ‘I told you so.’ So, what do you want me to say?”
“All Mom and I want is to know how you are. We want the truth. Both of us know, without you admitting it I might add, that it can get rough out here,” Alec said. He watched Ben slowly set his nearly finished gyro down on the tray. “Every time I look at the temperature on my phone or in my car, every time I turn on the weather channel in the morning, every time I see the panes on the windows frosted over, I worry about you. We both worry.”
The conversation lulled for a moment while Ben gathered his thoughts. He picked up the gyro and finished it. Alec saw him gaze out the window where Jamie strolled by holding a cigarette and a dollar in one hand, all the while struggling with Furlong with his other arm. His chest was puffed out with pride. Somewhere under Ben’s Beard, Alec thought he saw a smile.
His eyes travelled back to Alec. “Well. I do enjoy helping these people. And I sincerely believe they like helping me too. That part is true. But it wasn’t my intention to come here. Nobody comes to the Boot-stomp on purpose. You know, I’ve thought about coming home. I have. But everyone here is just as much my family as you and Mom are. And many of them look up to me. I know that. By the way if you aren’t going to eat your food, I’m wide open,” Ben said gesturing at Alec’s still unopened bag. Drops of tzatziki sauce populated his beard still from the first gyro.
“Here, you can have it. The way you talk about the Boot-stomp, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had won an election.”
“There was no election but if anything, it was a fairly democratic process. Not that I’m president of the place or anything. People do ask me for advice though.”
“What kind of advice?”
“Honestly, you never know what someone will ask. Jamie asks me if I know anybody with cigarettes every day,” he said unwrapping his second gyro. “He’s not the only one either. I had someone this morning asking for help with Veteran’s Affairs. Alec, I don’t know the first thing about the VA, but it makes me feel so glad that someone trusts me enough to ask. You know.”
Alec began to understand something that he hadn’t for a long time. Listening to Ben talk made him think about what a loser his little brother was in high-school, and how people treated him after he dropped out. They treated him like an outcast, and he had finally found a home where people had respected him. He looked up at Ben and couldn’t help but smile. “Mom will be ecstatic when she hears how happy you are,” he said. “And I’ll make sure she knows that you still have an appetite. I can’t stop her from worrying though.”
Ben stopped eating and affected a grave tone. “How is she?” he said.
“The doctor said that with the radiation she might last another year. But in my opinion, the doctor also seemed doubtful about the radiation therapy.”
“People have pulled through before though.”
“But what, Alec?”
“Mom’s not a spring chicken anymore. She turns 79 in a couple of weeks.”
“Yeah, I know. I guess— Dad was just hard enough, you know.”
“She took it like a champ though.”
“She did. I guess she wants this back, doesn’t she?” Ben said with a sigh. He reached to the back of his neck, then pulled the pearls out from under his beard. “I just knew she wasn’t going to be around forever. I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to remember her.”
Alec took the pearls. “Thank you, Ben. I promise I will personally bring this back to you. She was just devastated that they had been taken. By the way, I don’t have the slightest clue how you got them, but I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Don’t you take Mom to church every Sunday?”
“That’s when you did it?” Alec said, unable to hold in his laughter. “You are one sneaky bastard. How did you even get out to her house? Actually, please don’t tell me. Hey, I think we should get going; all these people staring is creeping me out.”
“Yeah, I can show you my place.”
Ben went to refill his drink while Alec threw the trash away. While he sat the tray above the trash can he began to grow concerned about what exactly Ben’s definition of living quarters had become.
They left the restaurant, but this time Ben held the door for Alec. The sun was beginning to set; its light cast their shadows for miles in the opposite direction. Ben turned to Alec and said, “so how’s Dad’s book shop doing?”
About the Author:
Blake V. Rose is 26 and is currently in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in English at East Carolina University. He moved to Greenville, North Carolina with his wife, dog, and two cats at the beginning of 2019. His goal is to attend graduate school for a master’s degree in linguistics after he finishes his undergraduate studies. Blake currently has a short story, ‘The Colossi and the House of Nhan,’ published in the Alban Lake Publishing Company’s Lovecraftian anthology ‘The Mad Visions of Al-hazred’ and Poetry in the anthology ‘Under the Cherry Tree: 20 Great Poets in Their 20s’edited by W.B. Cornwall and A.N. Williams. His main interests lie in writing, whether it be poetry, short stories, or that novel that he will finish someday, hopefully soon.