The Street with No Name

Everything changed that night, when he found the dead man. It was where the street with no name opened onto the big boulevard near an intersection with another retail street. Traffic screamed by endlessly, even after midnight, while hopeful horndogs threw their keys at the valet in front of a loud restaurant, famed as a pickup spot. A forlorn motorcycle slouched in the window of an office that made loans on pink slips and called the repo man the first time a payment was late. It wasn’t a great place to live, but it was a worse place to die.

The street with no name had a name, of course, but didn’t deserve it. It was just a glorified alley running behind the row of commercial buildings that hulked over the boulevards. It served loading docks that never saw a load, parking lots that were never more than half full, and steel doors that opened four feet above the asphalt. Business wasn’t what it used to be. He’d never seen a truck there though he’d walked the street a hundred times. Business wasn’t what it used to be for him either. Walking kept him from feeling frantic. He had some money, because he still had some work, but there was no cushion any more. He didn’t like to drink, so he walked. Especially at night. He had to be more alert at night, and it distracted him from his worries.

The street ran for four blocks, cutting the short way across them. In the middle of each block a true alley fed away from it in the long direction, running between padlocked backyard gates. These alleys were narrow and bumpy, full of trash, old stained sofas, and broken bottles. No one went there but incipient street punks needing a safe place to practice being bad. In the daytime, the graffiti patrol would paint over their scrawls. At night, the kids put them back. Tides of spray paint surging back and forth. The cops didn’t seem to care.

The punks didn’t linger on the street with no name. It was watched by the dull eyes of security cameras. The walker must have been photographed and erased a thousand times by now, day and night. He wondered whether that had worn away at his soul. To be seen and deleted by some weary uniform in a cramped white room. It bothered him, but not much.

The homeless folk of the neighborhood liked the street. There were bottles to pick up near the mouths of the alleys, and the street was as safe any anywhere could be for them. No one would challenge them there. The men in the little rooms knew they were harmless. They pushed their carts along the street with no name, men and women with no name that they would tell you. The dead man had been one of them. He had seen him many times.

The dead man was fat, with a lumbering step. He always wore a dirty dark-blue sweatshirt and shapeless trousers rumpled over scuffed-up boots. He had one stray eye in his coarse face, but neither eye would ever make contact with yours. He wouldn’t speak to anyone. He just pushed his cart, which carried a large soft-sided suitcase of good make, as rumpled and scuffed as his boots.

The walker nodded to the dead man now and then. The dead man never nodded back. Even though they were neighbors of a sort.

One night he left his cellphone at home when he went out to walk after dinner. Spaghetti with butter and a salad of wilting lettuce and hard tomatoes. A pathetic little dinner. He didn’t want the phone to ring and give him false hope. Another goddamn recording offering to change his life if only he’d invest blah blah. Clients never called this late, and if they did, they could leave a message. He hadn’t checked his messages for three days though. Nothing but canned lies waiting to be heard. He walked a long way, through dark neighborhoods where the only signs of life were the porch lights over double-locked doors, a dog barking from behind a driveway gate. As usual, he went onto the street with no name, where it was quiet behind the shuttered offices. Walking along under the eyes of the video cameras bolted onto the blank high walls. Ahead of him he saw a movement: someone falling. It was where the street with no name met the boulevard. He hurried his step.

As he approached the noisy boulevard he recognized the heavy man with the stray eye. He had toppled onto his shopping cart and knocked it over against a wall. He lay upside down with his head in the cart and his neck at an odd angle. His suitcase lay beside him, half out of the cart.

The walker looked up and down the street. Not thirty feet away there was a group of people waiting for a bus, and a circle that had come out of the restaurant to smoke. He approached them. “Can I borrow a phone? I think the homeless guy is dead, but I’m not a doctor. We’ve got to call 911.”

Some of them looked at him and shook their heads. Some of them didn’t even look. He approached one younger man and asked him directly. “Just to call 911. Or you call them. Please.” The man said, “Sorry, no,” then looked back down the street to see if the bus was coming. The restaurant wouldn’t let him in without a reservation. He hurried to the corner where there used to be a pay phone, but the receiver had been torn off.

He went home, fumbled the key in the lock, found his phone, and called 911. It had been half an hour. The man with the stray eye was probably dead. After leaving his report with the efficient female voice, he checked his messages.

Nothing of importance, but there was always tomorrow.