As she trudged down the alley, Cenessa saw a small apple, half eaten by unknown scavengers, laying on the ground beside a turned over bucket with bullet-sized holes randomly scattered around its sides. She didn’t know who or what may have chomped on the apple. She bent down and sat on the back of her heels ready to snatch it and shove it into her mouth like a cat waiting to pounce a mouse. But she stopped and remembered how sick she became the last time she picked the trash.
She worried a rat may have eaten the other half of the apple and it could be teeming with germs. Her desperation spread like wildfire through her brain. I have to eat. I’ll die if I don’t eat something soon. I’m so hungry, so hungry I could eat anything, ‘cept a rat. But it’s just an apple. An apple that a rat probably fed on!
Her head pounded and ached, her stomach swelled and bloated from not eating for most of the week, hurt. She felt cramps from the emptiness as she bent forward, pushing her face close to the apple. She stopped and leaned back only for a few seconds, until her brain passed into a mesmerizing state of euphoria at the sight of food. She reached for the apple, her hands shaking and hesitant. Then snatching it like a panther in pursuit of prey, she stuffed it into her pocket as she looked around making sure she wasn’t being watched. The alley was dark and empty. No one had seen her. No one could take it away from her. For the moment, she felt safe.
She stood up and began walking towards the streetlight. She wandered the streets looking for a store with a bathroom, one where the owner wouldn’t throw her out at the sight of her but couldn’t find the courage to enter a place she hadn’t tried before, so her destination became the small deli she often frequented. But when she finally arrived at the familiar storefront, there was a sign in the window that read, “Closed indefinitely due to an emergency.”
She sighed, her shoulders sinking lower, her body barely standing upright, making her thin frame seem even smaller. Cenessa was planning to wash the apple in the bathroom, but she couldn’t wait any longer. She removed it from her pocket and rubbed it several times against her clothing, and took a huge, hard bite, almost swallowing it whole. Though still immensely hungry, Cenessa savored the sweet taste.
She put down the bundle of things she carried with her everywhere and opened the sack to see if there was something she could sell. The bag held plastic utensils and a few small packs of salt, a coffee mug, a bowl, a blanket, and several small stoneware dishes, a dress she found in the trash and sneakers with holes on the bottom covered inside with a piece of cardboard, old newspapers, an umbrella with a broken handle, a hair brush, two silver candle holders, and a wool jacket someone had given her from the homeless shelter. She could go to the shelter and try again, but earlier the lines were too long and the wait. She had tried another shelter, but it was full.
Her back ached from all the walking she had done from shelter to shelter, from the alley to the closed store. She decided to sit on the corner near a restaurant to collect change and hoped it would be enough to buy food for a while. Being a beggar hadn’t produced anything but pennies and dimes the last few days. She felt ashamed of her appearance and begging others for money especially when many who passed her way looked coldly upon her or didn’t notice her at all. Enough coins could provide a bus ride to another shelter farther from the city and she could eat there and not have to go into a store to buy food or sleep on the streets for a while. She took out the hairbrush from her bag and fixed herself as best she could. Then she dropped a small blanket down to the ground where she would sit. She placed a dented aluminum bowl in front of her for donations laying out the small silver candle holders hoping to sell them.
Many passed without depositing any coins and even those who went into the restaurant only glanced her way but donated nothing. The wait seemed interminable to her before she received her first coins. She worried about the small amount and started to beg. “Please, I haven’t eaten in days. Maybe you can spare a little for coffee or a sandwich?” Several coins rattled into the bowl. And then a few more came. It didn’t look like enough for a bus ride yet. She began repeating her pleas when a very well-dressed man with a black overcoat crossed over to the side of the street where she sat. He must have heard her begging because he stopped right in front of her. He smiled and stared. She was not a sight for sore eyes, and she couldn’t imagine why he was staring.
“I think I know you, or you remind me of someone I once knew.”
Cenessa sat up straight and spoke, “And who might that someone be?” Her eyes squinted back at him trying to see his face better.
The richly clad man stooped down to take a closer look. “Could you be Cenessa Mae Bonner?”
Startled at the mention of her name, Cenessa pushed herself back against the restaurant’s wall. Shakily, she said, “Who’s asking?”
“Don’t be afraid. I’m a friend of Cenessa’s, Roger Claude Beckham, III.”
Cenessa seemed upset hearing that name and started packing up her goods and blanket.
“Please don’t go yet. You haven’t answered my question. Are you Cenessa?”
“What if I am? I don’t know you. You must be mistaken. Did you stop to make fun of me?”
“No, I would never do that. I didn’t mean to disrespect you in any way.”
“Go away. I don’t remember much these days let alone anyone from the past. Go on, leave.”
The man stood up and tears brimmed his lashes. He didn’t want to leave but he tipped his hat to her and put several bills into her bowl which she had not yet packed.
Cenessa watched him walk away and grumbled under her breath. He doesn’t look like him. I don’t know him. Maybe it is him. He looks rich enough and kind of has those hollow eyes I’ve never forgotten, but it can’t be him. He must be a phony. He doesn’t know me. Bah. To heck with him and the past.
She picked up her bowl and saw that he left not ones, but several five-dollar bills. It was plenty for a bus ride to a shelter and much more, and once she packed everything, she went on her way to the next corner to wait for the bus.
Cenessa did not see that the man who had approached her left only to stand behind a large tree to watch her. When the bus arrived, he motioned to a taxi and once inside, he shouted, “Follow that bus until I say stop.”
The bus deposited her a block from the shelter. This was her favorite shelter but was too far for her to go often and she rarely had enough from what she collected for the cost of riding round trip. She only left the street territory she called home when she went to this particular shelter, frequently keeping close to those nearby that she could walk to.
After being signed in, Cenessa placed her belongings in the lockers provided and went outside after she bummed a smoke from the person manning the desk. She sat on the grass inhaling and through the smoke circling her face, another face appeared. Startled, she stood up and shouted, “What are you doing here, Mr. Beckham? Are you stalking me now? Go away. I told you I didn’t know you and I’m not who you think I am!” She turned around to leave.
“Don’t go, Cenessa. I know you remember me. You have a star tattoo on your neck. I didn’t see it at first, but the wind has pulled back your hair. I can see it now. You are my Cenessa!”
His eyes dripped tears as he moved closer to her lifting his arms up for an embrace, but she put her hand up to stop him and he backed away. Cenessa pressed down the front of her clothes, straightening her frame. Though trying to appear stalwart, the mention of proof of her identity bringing her back to the past she wanted to forget, shook her. Tired, humbled, and exasperated at being discovered, she said, “What do you want, Roger?”
“I want to know why you left me years ago and all the wealth of your family. I cried for months and searched everywhere for you for over a year.”
“I couldn’t stay. They were suffocating me, and I hated your family. They were making my life miserable because I wanted to be with you and accept your marriage proposal.”
“But we could have run away together. You didn’t have to leave me, just them. I’m so angry at you right now, I could spit.”
“Well, go ahead and spit. It’s common with us folks to do that. Nobody will care.”
“Stop joking! Why did you leave me? I loved you more than I can say.”
“Stop, please, with all that. Are you looking at me? Look what I’ve become, a homeless beggar! Though it’s a hard life, I answer to no one and I do what I want. I have many good days when I find quality merchandise to sell and other days when my bowl is full. It’s not all bad. The shelters help a lot when the weather is unpleasant.”
“Come away with me, Cenessa. Let’s live the life we never had together. You will want for nothing.”
“I can’t. I’ve done you wrong. That will always be between us.”
“I forgive you for leaving. Let’s go.”
“No, you don’t know.” Cenessa swallowed hard and cleared her voice. “I, I, gave birth to a child in an alley. It was yours. She died in my arms. I cut the cord myself, but something was wrong with her. She couldn’t breathe and by the time I walked one block, she was gone. She suffocated, her face had turned so blue, and then she stopped breathing. I live with that pain every day and how she looked. I did you wrong and her. This is my punishment and a blessing. I walk the streets, but I am close to her here. I buried her in an empty lot next to where the salvage yard is that belongs to them. They let me. I bring her flowers sometimes and visit whenever I can. I can’t go with you. She’s here with me.”
Roger stepped away from Cenessa holding a hand over his mouth to quiet his cries of pain and horror at the news.
“I have no cries left, Roger. You have had a better life without me. I won’t apologize for living my life the way I do nor for leaving you. As I said, this is my punishment and a blessing. I don’t need you or your money. Go away.”
Roger could barely stand. He wobbled slowly backwards further away from her as pain and anger took hold of him. He didn’t want to look at Cenessa or be near her. He tried to speak last words to her but couldn’t. He grabbed his hat which had fallen to the ground and prepared to leave.
Cenessa looked at him one last time before returning to the shelter’s warmth. “She belonged to me, not you. I carried her and gave her life. If she had lived, maybe then I would have found you to help support us, but I never would have left her with you or stayed. I don’t regret leaving. She belonged to me without you or my family having any of that pompous, rich life thrust upon her with all their societal rules and prejudices. Goodbye, Roger.”
“Goodbye, Cenessa, I never want to see you again.”
“The feeling’s mutual.”
Cenessa walked back into the shelter. She had no tears left to give and instead she smiled. She had stood up to remain on her own. That’s just how she liked it.