Empties by Kathleene Donahoo

Where are they, those bike-men in their tight bright shirts? This time of day they’re always here on the sidewalk outside the sandwich shop. Russ can’t go in, but sometimes they come out with things for him—a roll, some coffee, a handful of change. Yesterday the orange-shirt man gave Russ his favorite—a hot sandwich with soft meat and melted cheese. Remembering, he swallows and licks his lips.

Russ watches the door. No one goes in, no one comes out. Not the bike-men, not anyone. He squints up at the sun—it’s way past their usual time. The sandwich shop glass is dark when he walks by.

He passes the shoe shop, the hair place, the dress shop. All the glass dark, and no one on the sidewalk. The birds so loud that they make his bad tooth throb.

No cars move in the street, just people walking in the middle where they shouldn’t. Russell, you see things that aren’t there, his mother used to tell him. He rubs his eyes and looks again but the people are still there in the street. Some wear blue masks, like the man who once fixed his teeth. Seeing those masks makes his bad tooth throb harder.

He got lucky one night when he found a small whisky bottle in the weeds. It made his tooth stop hurting for a while. Now he takes the empty from his coat pocket and holds it to his nose. That warm smoky smell is almost gone.

Maybe the library-lady will help him. She always smiles when he walks past her desk to the bathroom. Once when he touched his jaw, she pulled a new toothbrush out of her desk drawer. It only made his mouth hurt worse, but she might have something else in that drawer.

Her glass is dark, too, and the door won’t open. Face pressed to the glass, he can see her desk. No people, but she must be in there—her yellow sweater hangs from the back of her chair. He tugs the door and bangs the glass and howls.

You keep this up, his mother’s voice sounds inside his ear, you’ll end up all alone in the world. She was right—after her death, his sisters kicked him out, then the cousin who’d felt sorry for him, then the people at the shelter. And she was wrong, too, because there was once a girl who shared his tent, then the bike-men and the library-lady.

But where are they now? He pounds the door with his fist.

“Stop that.” Russ turns to see a policeman. “The library is closed until further notice.” What he says next is muffled because of the mask he’s wearing. Russ moves closer to hear.

“Stop right there!” the policeman yells. “Hands up so I can see them. We don’t want any trouble now, do we?”

Hands up means jail. That would be okay—he’ll get a crapper and a cot and some food. But they’ll take his bottle. With one hand deep in his pocket he clutches it, and slowly raises the other hand.

“What you got in there?” The policeman points a gun straight at the pocket with the lucky bottle. “Pull that hand out, and do it slow.”

Russ makes a quick quarter-turn, offering his other side, the one with the empty pocket. Suddenly he’s a kid again, and his mother’s voice comes straight from the policeman’s mouth: Oh my sweet boy, you’ve really gone and done it this time.

Kathleene Donahoo’s fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Carolina Quarterly, North American Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in the Bay Area.

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